Reviews of the Poets (1)

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Personal View

As you will have gathered from my home page, Seamus Heaney is for me a poet of some importance. It is to his poetry - and, to a lesser extent, to that of Hugh MacDiarmid - that I constantly return, a return that is always accompanied by feelings of coming home or talking (listening) to an old friend.

Early on, when I first began to read his work, the feelings I derived from it had to do with its simplicity and its inevitability. The paradox was - and is - that what seemed so inevitable could be so unexpected as to be electrifying. Nothing has changed since then; the words and the images retain their old powers. The inevitability of which I speak, implies, of course, a certain rightness of form or fitness for purpose, and seems to me to be analogous to that which characterises a Bernard Leach pot or one by a master of The Southern Song Dynasty. Nothing was there to cloak the purity of the form - no gratuitous cleverness or adornment, for example. The tone was informal, chatty almost, as though the words had been spoken by the fireside or in the pub, such phrases as: "Anyhow, there I was..."(Sandstone Keepsake),"....and damned if I look back."(The Underground), "or something like that." (The Poet's Chair) and the innumerable occurrences of "Next thing...". The tone put me at my ease and invited me in, while the form spoke with penetrating clarity; but then would come the reminder that they were not being spoken over a jar of ale or by beside the dying embers of a fire, for it would be a fortunate soul indeed who would be treated at the local hostelry to images so perfectly judged as those that describe the flax dam festering in the punishing sun:"Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles / Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell." (The Death of a Naturalist) or the shall-we-shan't-we? vacillations characterising the political situation in Ireland: "And airy as a man on a springboard / Who keeps limbering up because the man cannot dive." There are others. They come thick and fast.

In A Kite for Michael and Christopher, for instance, we read of: "...a flitter of blown chaff"; of the kite being "...grey and slippy in the making"; of it dragging "...as if the bellied string / were a wet rope hauled upon"; and of it becoming "a strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief."

In The Singer's House come the sad lines: "So much comes and is gone / that should be crystal and kept, / and amicable weathers / that bring up the grain of things / their tang of season and store / are all the packing we'll get"

In At Toombridge "The flypaper hung from our kitchen ceiling / Honey-strip and death-trap, a barley-sugar twist / Of glut and loathing".

These images were the linguistic equivalents of the brush marks on a piece of Chinese Guan Ware or a Bernard Leach pot that all but take your breath away with their spontaneity and their exactness, so clearly do they sing new notes in their own right even as they carry forward the major theme. I did not have to read Seamus Heaney for too long, though, to realise that each poem is a one-off, a different kind of sortie against inhumanity, a new experiment or an exploration into new territory. The Poet's Chair takes us, in my view, into a new dimension. A response to a bronze sculpture by Carolyn Mulholland, it was my introduction to Heaney's "three-phase" poems in which he first introduces some aspect of everyday life, the life that we all have to make sense of in some way, that has a degree of blissfulness, however tainted and imperfect. This section of the poem will often be in some degree autobiographical. The poem then moves on to describe the loss or partial loss of that normality. (In The Poet's Chair we have the tragic but heroic death of Socrates. Heaney imagines him sitting in the chair in which just about everybody in the town has sat at some earlier time or other.) The last section points to a reclamation of what was lost or sullied.

I will conclude with a few words on Station Island, aware that in doing so I am presenting a limited selection from the Heaney menu - but then the intention was never to do more than to tempt perhaps one or two who have not yet discovered the pleasure of reading Seamus Heaney to open a book of his verse. Station Island is a venue for penitential, three-day pilgrimages consisting of a punishing routine of prayer, fasting and walking bare-foot round a series of stone circles, the remains of an ancient monastery. Heaney makes it his setting for a series of encounters with various shades from Ireland's (in some cases, his own) past. They are alter egos living lives that in different circumstances could have been his, or they are advisers reminding him of his responsibilities as poet, citizen, family man or whatever. Heaney draws on Dante's Purgatorio and through the dramatic roles given to his shades and through the various modes and phases of what is a very long poem, explores what are or might have been the various possibilities for himself, the church and the Irish State. Is there, though, a touch of irony in that he puts his pilgrimage to two slightly inconsistent uses? It becomes both a renunciation of his former Catholic faith and a confessional - he has been too uncommitted politically and has failed to fulfill obligations, failed to keep promises and has reneged on positions taken in earlier works: "I repent / My unweaned life that kept me competent / To sleepwalk with connivance and mistrust."?

A Bibliography

Seamus Heaney Helen Vendler Harper Collins ISBN 0 00 225856 4 The Poetry of Seamus Heaney Neil Corcoran faber & faber ISBN 0 571 17747 6 The Redress of Poetry Seamus Heaney faber & faber ISBN 0 571 17537 6

The Poetry

The Death of a Naturalist 1966 Door into the Dark 1969 Wintering Out 1971 North 1975 Field Work 1979 Station Island 1984 Sweeney Astray 1984 The Haw Lantern 1987 Selected Poems 1966 - 1987 1990 Seeing Things 1991 The Spirit Level 1996 Electric Light 2001